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In our opinion: Earth Day reminds that environmental stewardship starts with us

Elliot Musgrove examines an earthworm he found while weeding his urban farm in his backyard in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 12.
Elliot Musgrove examines an earthworm he found while weeding his urban farm in his backyard in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 12.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

Author and environmentalist Wendell Berry once observed, “The ‘environmental crisis’ has happened because the human household … is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature.”

Put a different way, people don’t know how to take care of the environment because they don’t know how to take care of each other.

This Earth Day should be a day to evaluate the state of each “human household” and orient individual hearts toward stewardship, reverence, prudence and innovation, because the negative counterparts to those attributes have run rampant for too long.

Greed, exploitation and disregard leave deep and lasting wounds, not only on Mother Earth, but on earthly mothers, fathers, children and neighbors. Contempt tears apart marriages, and selfishness breaks up families. Can we expect those who hold so little regard for human relationships to esteem their environment much differently?

The bridge that connects the households of humans and nature is stewardship. Careful stewards know they do not own anything, but that they are caretakers of another’s belongings. They cherish what’s been given them and hold sacred their relationships. Wise stewards make hard choices based on long-reaching consequences rather than short-sighted reactions. Innovative stewards foresee hurdles and find new ways to navigate the future.

From stewardship springs compassion, helping one care about the misfortunes of others. More and more struggle in the wake of weather as natural disasters prove more extreme. Drought has displaced thousands of “climate refugees,” and rising sea levels threaten thousands more. The World Bank estimates climate-related challenges will displace more than 140 million world inhabitants by 2050 unless current trends change.

Combating climate change isn’t for the planet’s benefit. “The planet will be fine,” climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel told the Deseret News. The real issue is how much human suffering the world is willing to accept. Learning compassion for the land and the people who live on it adjusts the mind to think first of humanity and second of politics.

And politics does have a role to play. It’s the framework that enables government to defend and protect its citizens. Unfortunately, the tribal, winner-loser kind of politics stands in the way of even a half-decent discussion on the topic.

Until politicians can wrest the debate from the hands of partisans, big government won’t be of much help. In the meantime, the rest of the population can and should learn their role. Innovative businesses can build cleaner technologies. City councils can plan for smart and resourceful growth. Individuals can learn respect, honesty and reverence by starting in their homes.

As Berry puts it, “We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.” As grand as the environment is, it does not function in isolation. Fixing ourselves will be the first step to a sustainable future.